by Jane Lenel
“It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.” Mary Seelye probably didn’t sing this well-known 1930s song to her pupils, but it would have been a good refrain since “the way that we do it” is the focus of the Alexander Technique that she taught for over 30 years.
Why does my neck ache when I turn my head, my shoulder when I reach to the top shelf or my back when I sit at my computer — or even sitting down when I go horseback riding? Why does my arm affect my tennis serve or my violin playing? What’s wrong with my voice when I sing?
Her answer is that such problems are caused by the unconscious build-up of muscular tension. The solution is freeing that tension. She accomplishes this, hands-on, by first making her pupils aware of the tension and then guiding them in the experience of its release. She finds the tense spots with her hands, makes it clear that the subject is tightening his/her muscles with the eventual goal of teaching the subjects to do it for themselves — “to learn a freer, less tense and poised way of moving,” she says.
The goal is primarily to make you aware of where the tension is and by being self- aware and mindful of and avoid tightening up. She doesn’t “manipulate” in any way. The whole thing is teaching you NOT to tense up.
Frederick Matthias Alexander, a Shakespearean actor born in Tasmania, found the answers to such problems in the 1890s when he had trouble speaking and breathing on stage. His doctors are said to have told him they couldn’t help and that he should change his profession.
But rather than quit the stage, he found out for himself by looking in mirrors and discovering that he was tightening his whole body by pulling his head backward and down to reach the back rows of the audience. This affected his vocal production.
Self-awareness and mindfulness of the tightening habits that get in the way are the keys to righting our muscular wrongs, Seelye insists. “It’s a mind-body relationship. The two are not separate entities but are part of the same self.”
Sometimes problems spring psychologically from trying too hard to succeed or fear of failing. Our stress creates tension, which we send to our muscles, tendons, nerves or any part of our body that’s involved. We may want to win a tennis match, for example, but our arm tightens up and we muff our serves.
Most of these are grown-up problems, she says, but they can start when we are as young as two years old. At birth we are equipped with remarkable tools to get us where we want to go, but soon we start gathering a body full of bad habits.
When we crawl or begin to walk, we want to be where we aren’t, and fast. Then, on the way, we bump into un-picked-up toys or slip on something slimy which we try to overcome with “machinery” we don’t yet know how to operate correctly.
Then, as we struggle through adolescence into adulthood, we encounter new and different challenges, activities and stresses, adding more bad muscular habits.
The Alexander Technique is often used and taught by classically trained vocal coaches and musicians. Its advocates claim that it allows for the free alignment of all aspects of the vocal tract by consciously increasing air-flow, allowing improved vocal technique and tone.
Mary Seelye, 83, who formerly lived near Spring House and now lives in Cathedral Village in upper Roxborough, didn’t plan to go the Alexander route until she was about 50. Then her sister gave her a Christmas present of lessons with Catharine Merrick (married to a Polish Count Alfred Wielopolski; hence, Countess Wielopolski), an “elderly lady in her 70s” who had been a member of Alexander’s first training class in London.
“It was just the right time for me,” she said. “My four children were all grown, and I was living alone. I was lucky, though, because it taught me so much about myself.”
Seelye’s early life was involved with music. “My mother was a singer and cellist, and my sister and I grew up singing and playing the piano,” she said. Living in Greenwich Village, she attended the Little Red School House and the High School of Music and Art in New York City. She then went to Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, N.Y., where she studied voice, and music composition under Norman Dello Joio.
(One of his particularly memorable assignments was to write and orchestrate a piece to be performed by a chamber orchestra directed by Leonard Bernstein. Quite an occasion, she noted, though “Mine wasn’t startlingly good.”)
“I also liked sports, played tennis and rode horseback, and I liked to sing in choral groups” (at St. Thomas Church in Whitemarsh for 20 years and in Chestnut Hill).
Now at Cathedral Village, Mary Seelye’s life still resonates with the Alexander Technique and music, and she’s always ready to help her friends and acquaintances banish whatever delinquent muscle behavior accosts them and to foster their sense of well-being she says the technique promotes.
Ed. Note: Mary Seelye is not seeking any new clients for her services.